Local history at your fingertips

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Local newspapers have been important records of history throughout our nation’s history. Here in Isle of Wight County, unfortunately, the early record is pretty sketchy.

During the late colonial and early federal periods, local residents appear to have relied largely on the Virginia Gazette. It was and still is published in Williamsburg, and carried smatterings of news from this side of the James River.

Documents in the Colonial Williamsburg Library record that here in Smithfield, there have been five newspapers since the Civil War. There were The Enquirer, The Enterprise, The Journal, The Recorder and The Smithfield Times.

The Enquirer lasted four years, the Enterprise and Journal one year each and the Recorder three years. The Smithfield Times has been more resilient. Founded in 1920, it’s still here.

And last week, we announced completion of a project that will ensure that all extant issues of The Smithfield Times will be around from now on. The Library of Virginia’s Virginia Chronicle project has digitized issues of the paper dating from 1928 through 2013. And they are available to the world on a searchable database managed by the library.

Copies of papers published since 2014 are available in PDF form to our subscribers and we hope will soon be searchable as well.

I know of no copies of those early pre-Smithfield Times newspapers. They lasted for such a brief period that archives were probably never created and, if they were, they were lost to history.

And that applies to the early copies of The Smithfield Times. Four different people owned or managed it during its fledgling years and no one appears to have kept any comprehensive set of those early papers. Fewer than a half dozen copies of papers from the early 1920s have been found.

The collection now on the Virginia Chronicle site begins in 1928 and even in that year, there are missing copies.

The next big gap in the collection is an eight-month period in 1962. It was then, also, that the paper changed hands and a lapse in archived papers appears to have occurred.

A treasure trove

The old copies of The Smithfield Times offer a window into life in the town and county and, to some degree, Surry from 1928 forward.

Local families will be delighted to find everything from births to death, weddings, honor rolls and all sorts of other nuggets.

The digitized files also a much more serious look at local history — of economic hard times, of war and of social change.

Some of it, by today’s standards, is painful to read because the old papers leave no doubt of the inequalities that existed in society during the first half of the 20th century. The papers from the late 1920s and 1930s, in particular, reflect the disregard that ruling white society had at that time for Isle of Wight’s black population. Those early papers are rife with racial jokes considered funny at the time and disgusting today.

But a study of the evolving local history through the papers also shows how hard some people worked to overcome that history. The Smithfield Times in the late 1960s carried numerous stories and letters from readers showing a growing sensitivity to race and, during that period, a desire to make the integration of schools a peaceful and positive transition.

And more recent papers from the 1970s forward show the county’s evolution from a quiet agricultural county to a more suburban community, with the tensions that accompany such change.

Then there’s science. A word search for Kepone, the pesticide released with disastrous results into the James River by a company in Hopewell, returns 157 stories.

It’s all there — the good, the bad and what ought to be the embarrassing. And, if you have an interest in Smithfield, Isle Wight and Surry history, it’s worth studying.

The Library of Virginia archive site is virginia.chronicle.com. Dig into it, do a word search and watch a community’s history come alive.